Why Your Copy Isn't Working And How To Transform It, Instantly

August 25, 2014 Steve Maurer

Your copy isn't working

It happens to all of us, so don't feel TOO bad.

I know it's happened to me before. I've worked on an article, pouring all my blood, sweat and tears into it. It was a labor of love. And when reading it for the first draft edit, I cried.

But not in a good way.

The copy I'd written didn't move me to tears because it was brilliant. I bawled because it sucked big time. And there was no one to blame but me. There aren't any boring topics or industries, at least not any that I've found.

So the problem lay squarely on my shoulders. The copy was, after all, on MY computer screen; I must have written that trash. Therefore, it was my job to fix it.

Yes, you can transform your copy from bland to grand. But to do that, you first need to discover what went so terribly wrong.

Here are two main areas to concentrate on, with several pain points in each.

1. It's Unreadable

I read a book once.

Hold on, now! I've read more than one book, honestly. But this particular one sticks out in my mind. The plot idea was good. It was about this underdog college kid who had mental and physical issues.

It was the story about how he rose above his challenges to become a real winner. And how the whole school rallied around him and supported him. It was a true story, based on a real person. I knew it well because I'd seen the news clips and magazine articles about this intrepid young man.

I thought the book would be cool, so I bought it. But it sucked. The writing was so poor that it ended up under a leg of my wobbly dining room table.

It served a purpose; just not the one the writer intended.

Here are some issues that make copy unreadable.

Monotone Writing

You've listened to speakers whose monotonous droning literally put you to sleep, right?

Did you know you could write that way as well? Sure enough, it's true. This usually happens when all of the sentences are similar in length. You need to vary the length, using both long and short sentences.

Think "Morse Code": dot dot dot - dash dash dash - dot dot. You can actually build a cadence, a rhythm into your sentence structures. It may not be melodic and your reader may not break out in song, but a good rhythm makes the text more readable. And varying the cadence makes it even more enjoyable.

Scary Construction

I've looked at some articles that looked downright terrifying; they appeared too hard to read.

You need to make your writing look inviting, not forbidding, particularly on the Web. Much of this involves good paragraph structure. As with sentences, you should vary the paragraph length. Maybe even use one-sentence paragraphs. I know this goes against everything you learned in formal writing class.

But it's true.

I've seen big blocks of black text that made my eyes cross before I'd read the first word. Huge paragraphical monstrosities that would chase off any reader.

This concept was illustrated to me quite effectively recently.

At our kids' urging, my wife and I each bought Galaxy Tab S tablets this week. That's something I swore I'd never do. I mean, really! I write on a desktop computer with two 20-inch monitors. Now they want me to view web pages on something the size of a postage stamp?

All right, I'll admit they are cool. And way easier to carry around.

But these technological marvels confirmed what I believed about paragraph formatting.  Going to various websites, I twisted and turned the device to see how the copy rendered each way.

It was amazing.

While some texts looked great on a "real" screen—like my desktop monitors—they were appallingly difficult to read on the tablet. One paragraph actually took up the entire screen on one site I visited.

Be mindful of paragraph length when writing web copy. You never know what devices your readers are using.

And don't forget to use exceptional, useful subheads to break up the copy and to guide your readers' journey.

Prudish Punctuationalism

Yeah, I know that's not a real word. My spell checker reminded me of that.

But here's the concept. It's something that would make my writing teacher cringe. Understand that you probably shouldn't do this everywhere, but sometimes you need to bend the rules a bit.

When writing copy for the web, you sometimes need to show your readers how you want your copy read. Punctuation is often the only way to accomplish that task. Commas, colons and semicolons indicate pauses of different lengths. They help control the pace of the reading. 

Dashes and other punctuation marks perform similar functions.

Now, don't get downright barbaric. Bending is one thing. Outright disregard of punctuation rules is sloppy work. When you do use unconventional punctuation, make sure it fits the situation.

I keep the current copy of the Associated Press Stylebook on my desk. I refer to it often and use it as a guide for formal writing projects. There are times when formal is better.

2. It Reeks of Purple Farts

The first time I heard that term I almost wet my pants.

I wish I could take credit for it, but I read it in a post by Bill Reichert, the managing director for Garage Technology Ventures™.

The article was about writing a good executive summary, but the concept applies to all copy. Here's a quote from the article (with permission from Bill himself):

Avoid “purple farts”—phrases and adjectives that sound impressive but carry no substance. “Next generation” and “dynamic” probably don’t mean anything to your readers (unless you are talking about DRAM) and tend to be irritating. Everyone thinks their company is “disruptive” and their software is “intelligent” and “easy-to-use,” and everyone thinks their financial projections are “conservative.” Explain your company the way you would to a friend at a cocktail party (after one drink, not five).

Took away all your cool words and phrases, didn't it? But don't worry. You can come up with better ways to write your copy. Those terms are cliché anyway. Be original and be real.

I emailed Mr. Reichert and we discussed another purple fart, one that I've seen more in company descriptions than content marketing. But it often rears its ugly head there as well.

Don't overinflate.

Anything.

Here's an all too common example: We have a combined experience of over 50 years!

Sounds impressive . . . but no, you don't. What you may have is 10 people with five years of experience each. Or even more likely, 50 with one year each.

Your total experience is only equal to the person with the most time. Come on . . . be honest.

Don't think your readers are idiots. They're not and they can smell those rancid purple farts a mile away. Always be honest with your readers. They will respect you for that.

By the way, there is no "totally honest." You're either honest or you're not.

Period.

End of soapbox rant.

Going from bland to grand

I hope this helps you evaluate your copy when it falls flat.

Here's one final tip: Use the Flesch-Kincaid Readability tool. It helps tame your writing by keeping it readable. Aim for a grade level of no more than 7 or 8, and as high a readability index as you can get. Eliminate passive phrases whenever possible.

Then edit like you mean it.

For example, the scores for this article are a grade level of 5.1 and a readability ease score of 76.1 with 0% passive phrases. It didn't start out that way.

Editing rocks!

Editor's note: Also check out Atomic Reach, which measures your blog posts as you're writing based on how well they'll engage your audience.  

Effective editing is bloody business and you may need to kill off some of your pet phrases and style choices. Keep in mind this one, very important idea and it will be less painful: You are writing for your readers' benefit, not to please yourself. 

Study your readership intently. Discover their wants, needs, and deep-down desires. The panacea for bad copy is in understanding your readers intimately and then writing to them, not at them.

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About the Author

Steve Maurer

Steve Maurer, Maurer Copywriting is a freelance copy and content writer in Fayetteville, Arkansas. His tagline at Maurer Copywriting , Professional Freelance Business Writing – Plain and Simple, explains both his target audience and his writing philosophy. You can meet him on LinkedIn or call him at 479-304-1086.

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